Billy was closest in age to his brother Don, the confident, loving, and youngest McCloud. Don had a heartfelt laugh and a signature sense of humor. Many Indians are well-known storytellers and Don was never without commentary. When he got older, Don would tell stories to his children as he poled canoes on the river. “When he checked his net, he would always throw a fish on the banks,” says Shippentower-Games. “We would ask him why he was doing this and he said: ‘If you don’t feed the little people, they would play tricks on you!’ He told us a story when he went one night and he forgot to throw the fish. Pretty soon, he seen little lights and his hair stood on end and rocks were flying at him so he didn’t forget to feed the little people anymore.”
Tragedy struck when Billy was twelve. Rose lost her husband and overnight became a single mother of six. Her husband, Herman Buck John, was a paratrooper who died with honor. He had slung his sea bag over his shoulder for war the last time Billy saw him alive. With his nieces and nephews in tow, Billy followed his uncle down a dirt road. “He turned to the right to go down to the highway and catch his bus. We never saw him again. He got killed over in Germany.” Private Herman John of Nisqually died in the European Theater of Operations, 1945.
Rose depended a lot on Willie and Angie. She lived frugally, with kerosene lamps and a wood stove, and hauled water back and forth from the Nisqually River. She and her children picked hops to make ends meet. Eventually, Rose moved to the Salishan Housing Project in Tacoma. Her children split time between Salishan and the Landing.
Trouble didn’t end there for the family. Billy’s childhood home— “one of the best houses around at that time”—caught on fire in the 1940s. “Only the fish house survived,” Angeline Frank told the newspaper man. The Franks had left town. They returned to find their home gone. Reports are mixed on just what happened—the work of an arsonist or a wood stove. The end result was the same. “We had a big house up front [on the property], a beautiful house with a bathroom and all. Then someone burned it down 20 years ago. We lost everything.”
Out of the ashes, the Franks moved into their two-room fish house that sat on top of an old water break. “Both rooms were bedrooms” and one included the kitchen. There was a small porch and a narrow pantry. “You couldn’t see land looking out the back window,” recalls Billy’s nephew Ray McCloud. The Frank home sat dangerously close to the Nisqually River.
One day in the winter of 1945, as the temperature hovered in the mid-forties, Billy Frank Jr. became a fighter. Along the Nisqually River, Billy pulled thrashing and squirming steelhead and dog salmon from his fifty-foot net. To avoid the keen eyes of game wardens, he’d set his net in the river the night before. The downed branches of a fallen maple covered his canoe perfectly. But in the stillness of those early-morning hours, as he diligently butchered the chum, a yell pierced the silence. For Billy, life would never be the same.
“You’re under arrest!” state agents shouted with flashlights in hand.
“Leave me alone, goddamn it. I fish here. I live here!” Billy fired back.
“I fished in the daylight and they start taking my nets,” recalls Billy. “And I’m fourteen years old. When they started arresting us, I’d go set my net at nighttime. I never used a motor. I’d pull my canoe. I’d go up there like four in the morning and pick [the fish up] and come home.”
That morning, locked in a physical hold by game wardens, a warrior emerged. Billy knew he’d have to fight for his fishing right himself, the culture and heritage he knew. “I thought nobody protects us Indians,” Billy says. “The state of Washington, they protect their sportsmen, their commercial fishermen and everybody. But nobody protects us Indians, not even our tribe. They weren’t capable of the infrastructure to take care of us, take care of us in the political sense of legal and policy and technical. We never had no technical people. We never had no science people on the river. We had nothing. And I always thought, Jesus, we need somebody to be out there shaking their fist and saying, “Hey, we live here!”
Even with the fishing struggle, ask Billy about his childhood, and it is other memories that stick. He remembers the scents and ceremonies of salmon bakes, placing the fish on skewers and laying them down alongside a fire where they’d bake for hours. He remembers scavenging the foothills for Indian medicine, “healing medicine that is still around the country. We go up to the mountain every year in the month of September and pick huckleberries on this side of Mount Adams.” He can hear the sound of racing horse hooves reverberating across the prairie. He can see himself standing on the back of a galloping horse, clasping onto his father’s shoulders as they charge over grassland around Puget Sound. The patriarch meant everything to the boy; the moment would prove a metaphor for life. By holding onto the beliefs of his ancestors, Billy learned to rise above an impossibly bumpy world.
Tomorrow-Chapter Three | The Survivor